30 August 2010

The Anniversary

The mud-splattered wagon trundled away, closely followed by what appeared to be a clapped out JCB. The final operation in the building of my neighbour’s new wing was done. Flicking a faded yellow duster over the sill, I tried to envisage my house free of brick dust and the stink of wet cement. I watched the wagon until it was out of sight, willing it never to darken our street again. There were enough new buildings to take the entire Warwickshire population.

Across the road in the maisonettes an old chap wedged open his door. He did this when the Meals on Wheels woman was due and sure enough there she was, driving up Silhill Street with her Thursday fare. A robust woman, never without a hat, with a matronly chest that reached its destination minutes before the rest of her body.

Seeing her reminded me that my faculties were on the blink, that one day she might be plying me with slender rations in foil dishes. The time might well come, but I wasn’t prepared to admit it to the likes of her. She would turn up her snooty nose and gloat on account of the telling off I gave her the other week. I told her she needn’t think she could boss me into giving in. I said until I got the telegram from the Queen I wouldn’t be savouring any of her wares.

I tweaked the curtain to view the houses, so long obscured by vans and diggers and mountainous heaps of bricks. Old Nelly and her friend Jess were attempting to reverse their car up the narrow drive and making a right meal of it. I couldn’t understand why they found such poor car control amusing but I envied their camaraderie. I had done ever since my Clive passed on.

Screwing the duster into a ball to retain the dust I turned away from the window, but hearing the honk of a horn I twisted back again to see John Carrington getting out of his red Jaguar and making a fist at two scruffy urchins playing ball in his drive. Cheeky beggars pulled faces at him as they ran off. As soon as they were out of sight he retrieved the wheelchair from the back of the car, waving to me before easing Nancy from the passenger seat. She waved as John transported her into the house. They had been on an excursion to Blackpool. When I heard they were going, I appealed to the Almighty to keep them safe. Satisfied that once again he’d done a thorough job, I sent him my appreciation.

I first met the Carringtons one wet, wintry day in the supermarket coffee shop. Several years ago now. We shared a table. John manoeuvred the wheelchair so that his wife faced me. A woman of ample proportions, she was wrapped in a blue wool coat the identical colour of her laughing eyes. She tutted as she pulled a wayward curl, irritated by its bounciness. That was Nancy, my prospective neighbour.

They called me Lizbet instead of Elizabeth, the name I was blessed with. It rolled off Nancy’s tongue like syrup off a spoon. I loved it. It made me feel special. God himself knows how I needed someone like her to latch on to…. her presence in my life went a long way to removing some of the loneliness.

I visited her every day when they moved in. My intention was to help her cope with the disabling arthritis but she was strong enough to handle her disability without my assistance. Nevertheless, she was happy for me to see to her hair. Whenever I brushed those dark locks I would remember the first time I saw her tug that obstinate curl and recall the words John had uttered in the coffee shop as he covered her hand with his: ‘I only promised to love her until she was sixty.’ I remember Nancy’s beaming face when she demanded that when the time came he would grant a ten year extension, and John’s choked reply, ‘You got it, lady.’

Finally withdrawing from the reverie, I noticed that John and Nancy’s door was closed. Normally I gave them the thumbs up before they disappeared into the house but I’d been so taken with reminiscing I missed the opportunity. I silently begged them not to take umbrage.

A cloudburst of loneliness washed my soul as I returned to the kitchen. The fire that had blazed before I began my prying window vigil had reduced to almost nothing. Seizing the poker, I stoked the dying embers until flames reawakened then threw on more cubes of coal. I counselled myself not to be silly but it didn’t work and I rounded on poor Clive when I saw him grinning from his wooden picture frame on the dresser. It’s all your fault,’ I grumbled, ‘leaving me here alone.’

The rain roused me the following morning. Raindrops thumping on the garage roof, water whooshing from the down pipe onto the front slabs, reminded me that the soak-away needed attending to. I was in the process of castigating the All-Powerful for designing such a rotten February when I heard footsteps on the path. Dragging myself from under the warm quilt, I advanced to the window and peered out. ‘Good Lord,’ I muttered. ‘It’s Postman Pat.’

The postman was holding a pink envelope. I was surprised because I had no reason to receive letters. Being childless and without relations to speak of my quota of mail had long since lapsed. Except for the bills! And there was no trash mail thanks to John arranging with the mail preference people to stop it.

Nervously, I descended the stairs to pick up the envelope, examined it front and back for evidence of the sender’s identity. The writing was sort of familiar. Slitting it open I extracted a card depicting a single scarlet rose. Curiously I looked inside. There was a photo of Nancy, John and me, taken one summer’s day in their garden. There was also an inscription.

“Ten years have elapsed since Nancy Rose and John William Carrington adopted you as friend and comforter. Happy Anniversary, dear Lizbet. Please accept this invitation to share Nancy’s ten year extension.”
Can you imagine my delight?

23 August 2010

Then there were three...

It must have been the excess of grapes that had me up in the night. I suppose it served me right for pinching them off the kitchen table. I wasn’t the only one up and about, old Owl surveyed the scene, looking for possible captures, while in the near vicinity his mate hooted and the fox hunted, his eyes lit up by the moonlight.

As I crept back through the hole in the barn door I heard Ginger snoring. He was galloping in his sleep like he was chasing something. I wondered what it could be; a mouse, or perhaps one of the cats had taunted him and was being chased away.

Although Ginger got on well with animals and humans he didn’t seem to relate well to cats, that is until two males were brought in to help keep the mice at bay. I suppose it was because they were now part of the farm that he made the effort to be friendly.

The cats had silly names, the lean black and white was called Stringy and the huge tabby was laughingly called Moses. Gaffer suggested Missus changed their names to something less comical but Missus said she thought it would be a bit of fun to keep what they already answered to.

The two cats were fairly friendly towards each other but occasional squabbles broke out. If one tried to sample the other’s food there would be lots of hissing and chasing, while a bewildered Ginger looked on. I didn’t stand any nonsense; if they started a power struggle in front of me I put my paw down hard on one of their heads.

Apart from all the night noises everything was peaceful so I curled up on the hay and covered my eyes with my paw to shut out the moonlight that came through the window.

The whistle woke me with a start. The huge green monster that rushed through fields and over a distant viaduct first thing in the morning always issued a shrill shriek as if saying it was time to wake up. Beside me Ginger gave a low growl; without fail he complained like that whenever the train went by. Well, I thought, I suppose that’s it, I might as well get up. But strangely enough Ginger didn’t bother. Instead he stood up, turned round a couple of times as if searching for a comfortable spot, then sank down on the same section of hay he’d been lying on before.

I wandered outside to check the food bowls by the kitchen door, just in case Gaffer had thought to get up early. I wasn’t disappointed. Next to the water trough there stood two shining enamel bowls filled with food so I barked a couple of times to alert Ginger.

It was at that precise moment that the kitchen door flew open and Missus flew out, shoving me to one side as she loudly proclaimed that she was late. Late? Our breakfast meal was already loaded into the bowls so how could she be late?

Gaffer wasn’t far behind; he came out armed with a small blue case and clutching a brown wallet. I was mystified … surely he wasn’t late as well?

Ginger arrived on the scene just as Gaffer and Missus got in their old car and raced off. He looked at me, and I looked at him. Both of us gave a worried woof before heading over to the bowls of food. Whatever was going on, it was better for us to keep our bellies full. With them going off like that who knows where our next meal would come from.

It wasn’t long afterwards that Gaffer’s car squealed into the yard. Ginger and I were on our way to the stables at the time but we stopped to look. Gaffer drew up beside the kitchen door, and whistled for us to go to heel.

‘Bet you lads wondered where I’d gone,’ he said, rubbing our backs as if he’d been away for a year.

I licked his hand and looked up expectantly, hoping he would enlighten Ginger and me about what was going on.

But we weren’t told, all we knew was that Missus had gone visiting. My guess was that she went on the train since Gaffer had come straight back to the farm. This meant, of course, that we had free rein, and so did Gaffer.

Every afternoon for a week we went long walks, sometimes using the car to get to somewhere different and then running our legs off investigating and sniffing out new land. It was on one of our afternoon treats that we met Susie, a young English Setter.

We hit it off straight away. Ginger liked her as well, he was always trying to get her to join our games of chase but Susie was quite refined for a young dog, she seemed to prefer watching us. Privately I thought Ginger’s constant fidgeting put her off.

Susie wore a white collar with silver markings that gleamed in the sunshine. It really suited her silky white fur. She belonged to a young farmer named Bill and lived in a very smart wooden kennel beneath a sturdy Horse Chestnut, with a long knotted rope hanging from its lowest branch. I anticipated lots of fun playing with that.

Gaffer took us there quite a lot in the next few days. Seems he had quite a business to get through with Bill. While they were seated at the kitchen table, their heads bent over lots of papers, Ginger, Susie and I played with the rope, then we’d scarper into the adjoining woods. Bill said we were quite safe because the whole lot was enclosed by fencing.

There were lots of things to excite us, woodpigeons to chase and the odd feline that skipped up the trees when we came along. Rabbits scampered in and out of burrows and I had great fun chasing a hare. It was touch and go who would win but he always seemed to have a head start. But the best of all was fishing in the pond, watched closely by Mr Kingfisher. He would dive to catch the fish I was trying to trap with my paw.

Ginger spent all his time playing with Susie and when they were near her feeding bowl she would paw some of the meat and offer it to Ginger. Pathetic, I called it. No upstanding dog would do such a scandalous thing.

Apart from that, when it was time to leave at the end of the week I felt quite sad. Gaffer said Missus would be home the next day and he had housework to do, which meant time in the Dolly’s stable for Ginger and me and no more visits to the farm.

It was while we were getting ready to depart that Ginger and I learned that Susie was joining us in the car. Apparently she was coming to live with us. We were delighted, of course. Ginger especially. The change in him was so noticeable … whenever Susie was near he couldn’t leave her alone. He was still my best friend but I suspect he had fallen in love with the glamorous Susie.

Missus was delighted with the new arrival. She’d bought new collars for us, a studded leather one for me, a woven chain and leather for Ginger and, would you believe, a new name tag for Susie. So she must have known before we did that Susie was coming to live on the farm.

Susie fitted in very well. We shared and shared alike, none of us ever taking advantage over the others. I could see happy times ahead. I wasn’t jealous that Ginger was besotted with a bitch of his own kind … after all, I had Chicken Fingers as Gaffer, Ginger and Susie as best friends, and Dolly too. And now that Missus had got used to having me around, my life was settled. I just hoped the cats would remember to keep the mice at bay.

This is the last one, folks. Seven parts, all done and dusted. If you want to read any part again you're welcome to visit the new blog It's A Dog's Life.

20 August 2010

Spirits of the Past

It was the weirdest dream I'd ever had. I was flying, literally, soaring like an eagle right into summer, leaving the New Year frosts behind. A silver cape streamed behind me. A black mask, slightly askew, had captured an aimless spiral of blonde hair. Apart from isolated cotton-candy clouds, there was nothing to see. I thought the world had disappeared until I found myself gliding over a floating mass of what appeared to be dark brown rocks. I hovered briefly in order to survey the great bulk of... well, I'll call it rubble for want of a more descriptive word. I could distinguish some mountainous areas in the middle, with colourless water snaking in and out, but the majority of the terrain was flat and sombre, littered with boulders and various markers. I shoved the delinquent hair behind my ear, adjusted the mask, and then zoomed down for a closer look. The nearer I got to that spherical island the more chilled I felt…yet it wasn't cold. In fact, the higher my cape flew the more of my shoulders the sun found to roast.

The markers were a diverse array of signposts each pointing in a different direction. Mostly the posts were constructed from wood, ramshackle and splintering, but one or two were elaborately created. Those were placed abreast of wooden stiles, though there was no path upon which to travel when one had clambered over. I plunged towards the first post and latched onto it by wrapping my arm around its imposing pointed prong. The letters inscribed there were huge and I had to tilt my head to read it.

Welcome to the Forties, it said.

Thank you, I said.

Slackening my grip, I drifted in the direction of less elaborate signs. They were branded with dates, deeply chiselled for permanency, years ranging from 1940 to 1944. Again I felt that sweeping chill. Vibes of bloody battles made me shudder. A curious burning smell made me want to puke. Lamentations filled the air and my cheeks were showered with watery drops. I glanced upwards expecting to see rain clouds, but the sun was shining as fiercely as before. Hastily, I averted my eyes, not liking the perception of such acute sadness. Anxious to find more agreeable surroundings, I pulled my cape closer and wafted away.

Flitting over a cheerless lake, I advanced towards a solidly constructed signpost, made of steel with wrought iron digits standing proud, each digit entwined with withered roses and sprigs of laurel. 1945. Waves of acclamation caressed me, yet the impression that someone had died was very strong. There were no mortals to whom I could attribute the echoing sounds yet I definitely heard laughter and muffled exchanges. And enunciated names: Hitler and Ribbentrop. My own impression was one of relief though I couldn’t explain why. It might have been the warmth, or the unexpected peace.

Ahead of me, descending slowly earthward, was an additional signpost. Enthralled by the method of descent I watched it alight on the brow of the hill, its arrow-like arm indicating the direction of the fifties. What lay on the other side? Would there be chaos, more gunfire and smoke, more flashing lights and despairing cries? I decided not to proceed. I had seen enough. All I wanted was to go home. If only I knew the way.

Swiftly, I arched away from the ghosts that occupied that extraordinarily desolate chunk of land, gathering about me the cape which seemed suddenly leaden. I panicked that the exit point might elude me, completely forgetting I could fly. I whirled round in my agitation and collided with a hitherto unseen monumental placard, suspended in mid-air, the size of the tract itself. I paced back, tortuously slanting my neck to behold the colossal red lettering. Red as blood, the only vivid colour in that dingy brown expanse.


Somewhere a clock chimed. Out of the remoteness came Ma's piping voice shouting me to wake. My eyes fluttered open. The silver cape was on the five-drawer chest where I had left it after the fancy dress ball. The mask was hanging by its elastic on one of the knobs. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was back home, in our matchbox-sized house, a bright and cosy property just big enough for Ma and me. We were unassailable. We were unaffected by past decades.

Or were we?

19 August 2010

The Parcel

I was all of a tizzy this morning. Looking back I can’t remember which calamity came first but I’ll take it slow and go through it step by step.

It was six thirty in the morning. I had washed my hair the night before, a practice that leaves my hair lifeless and in need of desperate help. This means I have to damp it down, then plaster it with mousse to give it body, and style it with the hairdryer before it gets a chance to ‘set’ … a daily routine that produces wrath on anyone who interrupts the procedure especially, as was to happen today, when I was due to meet new faces at a new venue and wanted to look my best.

After plugging in the hairdryer, I climbed onto the high stool and adjusted the mirrored cabinet doors so that I could see both front and back through the mirror on the back wall. This procedure has to be done speedily because of having hair that dries too fast.

Then the doorbell rang.

I didn’t know people were up at that time let alone calling at houses.

My Guy was in the garden feeding the birds so I had to answer it myself.

Falling off the high stool, forgetting to put on my glasses, I struggled to unlock the door (I couldn’t see!). There stood a post lady holding a parcel. I assumed it was for Guy since it seemed to be terribly official and he’s in the habit of receiving terribly official parcels (updates for his Tax Books or something else to do with the Accountancy Profession.)

The post lady had a hand-held gadget that I had to sign. ‘Write on the screen,’ she said, holding out a pencil, or should I say stylus.

I peered, wondering what screen she was talking about (remember the non-glasses!). She held up the gadget and pointed to the square at the top. I signed. Nothing happened.

She admonished me, saying ‘You didn’t press hard enough.’

I tried again.

Still nothing.

‘Sorry but you’ll have to press harder.’

Well, bearing in mind my arthritic wrists are especially painful and half way to being useless first thing in the morning I felt I was doing an adequate job even holding the pencil … or should I say stylus.

Eventually, lady keyed in my name, then told me to do a squiggle on the tiny screen.

I was happy to do that, but deep down I was cursing the whole thing because my hair by this time was dry and spiky and would need damping down again.

So I struggled in with the rather large parcel, which I put on the kitchen counter, shouting to Guy that there was a parcel for him in the kitchen and tootling off back to the bathroom.

In the process of climbing back on the high stool (think bar stool and you’ll get the picture) I knocked the hairdryer onto the floor whereupon the little plastic bit that switches it on and off fell to the floor.

This was a catastrophe and the final straw.

Talk about panic stations! They lasted until Guy could find the right tool to repair the dryer.

I went back to work on my hair in the bathroom!

‘What about your parcel,’ shouted Guy.

‘It’s not my parcel,’ I retorted.

‘That’s funny,’ he went, ‘it has America written all over it.’

OMG. The penny dropped, it was the parcel I’d been waiting for.

Another problem arose at that point. Although I didn’t know it previously, my sweet and generous friend adores bubble wrap and Sellotape and the two went together beautifully, each one sticking to the other as if they were romantically inclined.

Suddenly impatient to get the parcel open, I grabbed the scissors… quite forgetting the wrists would strenuously object. However, I persevered and managed to create a large enough hole to separate the lovebirds. Only then could we (yes, two of us) wrench the two apart.

I won’t elaborate about the contents, suffice to say that I was overwhelmed by them, and I just HAD to write about the start of my day which, according to Guy, he'd described to his park walking buddy as ‘all hell being let loose first thing this morning.’

Thank you, my dear friend. You will, of course, have received my reply, but I thought I should let the world know about the havoc caused when the post lady delivered your parcel in the small hours.

Is it time to go back to bed yet?

11 August 2010

The Visitor

I hadn’t really wanted to go trekking round the shops until I remembered the tit bits that came our way from the generous greengrocer. He always threw unattractive carrots and unlikely looking fruit to Ginger and me. Judging by the excited yapping Ginger was already on the lead and ready to go so I bounced into action, leaving the cushion of grass by the stable and promising Dolly we’d be back later. I felt sorry for the old girl, being shut up all the time, felt it my duty to keep her company when I had nothing else on.

A trip to the village shops was treat of the week. Every Thursday afternoon, without fail, Missus wrote out the various orders she wanted delivered: meat, vegetables, groceries, and phoned them through to the village suppliers. Everything else was bought separately the next day. Dog food, for instance. Missus would get the beef knuckles raw and cook them at home. I loved those days. I would sit with Ginger, drooling by the back door, forever hopeful.

This week was different. On Saturday there would be visitors to the farm when by all accounts we would have a little boy to play with. I can’t say we were thrilled by the idea. Great attention was paid to purchases for the occasion. Missus bought a lot more groceries, inspecting and discussing every item, which made me think really important people were visiting the farm. She even bought candles to put on a cake. I couldn’t understand who would want to eat a candle. Once I found a white one in the lane and started chewing before Gaffer could stop me. It tasted awful so I didn’t need telling twice to stop.

Ginger and I discussed the forthcoming visit with Dolly, the mare. We often lay by the stable for a bit of peace and quiet. Now it looked as if we might need it as a refuge from what Gaffer described as a wild child. Dolly looked worried when she heard the news. Her lips curled in a hearty neigh. I didn’t tell her that the wild child would want to ride her. Poor old girl, she wasn’t up to dealing with problems. Dolly was very old.

The ground was still wet after the heavy rain in the night, that’s why I slewed along the ground straight into a muddy patch. This of course meant I had to be bathed before the visitors arrived. I endured it much as I endured it when my first old lady made me sit under the shower while she cleaned my ears. I’m not a great lover of water, that’s why I don’t swim. Seems to me by the amount of times Missus washes Ginger that she’s got a fixation about cleanliness. Gaffer was sympathetic though, he kept telling me what a good boy I was. Well, that goes without saying!

The visitors arrived mid-morning, just as Ginger and I were settling for a kip, this time actually inside the stable. It’s where Gaffer puts us when he wants us out of the way. I was busy inhaling warm horse smells when I heard Dolly’s quiet whinny and the rasp of lips over her teeth. She’d been standing with her head sticking out of the door when the family arrived, that’s how she came to see them first. Very slowly, discreetly I thought, she backed into the stable and strolled over to where we were lying by a pile of hay. Idly nibbling some hay, she lowered her head and then tossed it as if to say ‘they’re here.’

Well, Ginger and I are nothing if not receptive, so we waited impatiently to be let out. Gaffer came soon after, calling us as he approached, ‘Ginger, Butch, come and see who’s here.’

We shot out of the stable the second the door opened, belted across to the kitchen door. Normally boisterous, Ginger showed a little caution when he saw the man, woman and child, a throw-back from past experiences, but I sped in, aiming for the man. I could tell he would be the one to make a fuss.

The child was called Jimmy. He was very young. He hadn’t yet learned that a dog’s ears are not for pulling. In the afternoon, wherever Ginger or I went Jimmy followed, trying all the time to hug us or pull our tails. Ginger was more tolerant than me, rolling over to let Jimmy tickle his tummy, but after a warning from Gaffer I kept my distance.

It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Jimmy but past experience at the old lady’s house had made me very wary. She had a wild child grandson who would pretend to be friendly then stick pins in my belly after he got me in prone position with him kneeling on top. Every time he came he thought up something new and even more painful to try. You can be sure I struck back, biting with my sharp teeth until he cried out, loud enough to attract the old lady’s attention. She took her grandson’s side. These incidents, coming on top of me scoffing her supper, made her decide that the best place for me was the dogs’ home.

I’m a lot older now and definitely wiser. Only the other day I heard Missus telling Gaffer about a child who was attacked by a dog. I wondered at the time what the child had done to make the dog so angry.

Gaffer took Jimmy out to see Dolly and immediately the two were friends. It was lovely to watch. Gaffer didn’t bother to saddle the old mare; he simply brought her out of the stable, sat Jimmy on her back and held him there while they ambled towards the field. Wild child squealed with joy and even though he reached for Dolly’s ears a few times Gaffer held him in place on her back. It looked so cool I almost wished I was up there as well.

Seeing how Dolly responded to the situation, lifting his legs in a light-hearted manner instead of the usual clunk and thump, head held high as if trying to reach the sky, it struck me that he was enjoying himself. He probably felt useful for the first time in years.

Jimmy quickly got the hang of bare back riding, his knees automatically gripping Dolly’s back. Gaffer’s hand was never far away though, just in case the boy slipped. I found myself hoping the wild child would pop in again, for Dolly’s sake.

At tea time everyone gathered round the table in the parlour while Ginger and I looked on from our positions by the hearth. It was one of those times when I questioned the mentality of humans. After a main course of salmon and greens, there was trifle with cream (we slobbered as we watched) and then the cake was produced. It bore six candles, all different colours, displayed in a circle on the top. We couldn’t believe what happened next. While everyone sang a song called Happy Birthday, Gaffer produced a box of matches and began to set fire to the candles. Ginger and I were horrified. It’s true what they say, dogs don’t like fire. I made a run for the door, outdoing Ginger by several seconds, but the door was closed.

‘Try the front,’ I barked, already racing through the house. I could hear wild child giggling which didn’t help my frame of mind. Didn’t he realise the danger of fire? Ginger sprinted by which proves that too much thinking slows me down.

Anyway, finding that door closed as well, we scuttled back into the parlour where I was grabbed by Gaffer while Missus threw herself at Ginger. Literally! Of course, they both fell over, which made Jimmy laugh even more. I couldn’t blame him; I had an ear to ear grin on my face too as I watched them trying to disentangle arms and legs. From the confines of Gaffer’s arms I surveyed the room, wondering what happened to the fire. There wasn’t even a flicker of a flame on the cake. Perhaps Gaffer had doused it with water?

When the visit was over, Gaffer walked me to the Rose and Crown. I liked these occasions, just him and me. It was still warm. I could smell that weedy stench that comes from the duck pond but it didn’t spoil the evening air. Gaffer’s step seemed sprightlier and I was really happy when he said, ‘You and Ginger really made Jimmy’s day.’ With that he patted my head and leaned down to give me a hug. As we walked through the pub door I thought, not for the first time, how lucky I was to have been chosen by this great big man.

All the tales in this series can be seen by clicking Butch's image above and visiting the new blog entitled Its A Dog's Life!

03 August 2010

Tea for Two (Repeat)

The tiny kitchen, with the fire lit and the oven on, was probably too warm for September, but the intention had been to create an ambience as resplendent as an autumn day. Golden and welcoming. A brass coal scuttle glimmering in the hearth, reflected the fire's amber glow. On the spacious windowsill, inside a frame of ecru drapes, a huge bronze pitcher was crammed with preserved beech leaves and dried wheat. Bunches of dried corn were tucked amidst the porcelain plates that stood side by side on a wooden rack.

The room, which she fancied was once a scullery, was where Gentle spent most of her time. Its smallness was comforting. She could bake or read or knit squares for Oxfam and forget the isolation of the enormous, inherited house. It was far too big for a woman living alone but today George was coming to tea. The prospect excited her. For far too long she had functioned like an ageing spinster when in fact she was only forty-three.

Not having enough recreation was her biggest difficulty. With only housework to occupy her she was becoming dull and uninteresting. Redundancy had struck hard. It had eliminated colleagues, assurances that they would keep in touch forgotten directly the office doors slammed to. Polly Moss had stayed in touch; she wasn't one of those perfunctory acquaintances who bandied pledges like confetti, but she was in the throes of a wild intrigue with Gary Starr, an all-in-wrestler, and was currently away with him on tour. Although the two friends regularly spoke on the phone it wasn't the same as getting together for a proper chin-wag.

The solution to enforced solitude was in Gentle's own hands. She could go out, join a social club, mix with the opposite sex. If she could ignore the phobia of abandonment she might find it easier to mingle. At times she felt doomed to dwell in eternal isolation, time surging ahead and dragging her into immortality. However, that brand of depression was rare. Mostly, she got on with life, grateful for excellent health and reasonable prosperity.

Gentle had opted for a solitary lifestyle after three serious relationships were shattered. The first by reason of death when a week ahead of their wedding her boyfriend contracted killer meningitis; the second terminating when the man who swore undying devotion was involved in a steamy sex scandal with his boss's wife; and the ultimate liaison that ended when her third beau took an unhealthy interest in female fashion. For a while Gentle had wondered about her ability to attract that kind of man. The episodes had wholly killed off her appetite for male companionship … until she met George and came to value his friendship.

Humming softly, she sorted the cutlery, choosing silver for the salad and delicate bone-handled knives for the scones. Would George commend her cooking? Would he like her home?

She had been drawn to him by his apparent regard for animals. When she first saw him in the park he was hunkered down to talk man to dog with a Yorkshire terrier. The next time he was perched on the school wall whispering to a cat, his beard blending very well with the animal's white fur. Several times she saw him by the lake tossing bread to the ducks. Sometimes he fondled the donkeys' manes; always he slipped titbits to dogs when their owners weren't looking. A man with a virtuous heart!

Gentle sniffed the air, inhaling the delicious smell of baking that made her mouth water. Satisfied the scones were cooked she scurried to the oven. Pulled open the door. Grabbing a heavily-singed oven cloth, she withdrew the tray and unloaded the scones onto a dish decorated with cornflowers, with divisions to take pots of jam and clotted cream. Arranged to her liking she deposited the dish adjacent to an oval platter of carved ham and a cut-glass bowl filled with green-leaf salad.

Hearing the grandfather-clock chime the half-hour, Gentle glanced at her watch. Three-thirty. Ninety minutes to countdown. Her stomach lurched. What had she done? What did he want? In the three years she had lived here only tradesmen had entered this house. Would she shape up as a hostess? Could she adequately converse with such an erudite man? It was one thing to twitter away making small talk, it was quite another to take part in profound topics such as politics, or the arts, or issues of an educational nature. Panic rose in her breast.

She tried to suppress her anxiety by twitching curtains, plumping cushions, straightening the framed landscapes; an inessential activity in that snug and shipshape room. Feeling the tremor in her lower lip she bit hard to make it stop, cursing her nervousness. She brushed a hand through chestnut curls that had been so carefully styled. Realising her mistake she rushed to a mirror to check its condition, releasing a sigh when she saw that no harm had been done. But anxiety continued to dangle its ice-cold digits and she sank wretchedly into a wooden armchair.

Silently Gentle counted the Denby cups hanging on the Welsh dresser. The monotony of the mental exercise was guaranteed to calm her. Four ... What had possessed her to accede to his request? Seven … What had he in mind when he asked to call? Twelve ... Why was she in such a terrible spin? She was behaving as if she was expecting a suitor instead of an elderly companion.

Polly had been aghast when she learned his age, claiming that Gentle must be mad to associate with such an old man. He was old enough to be her father. Gentle had chuckled, thinking how like her deceased parent he was. At least in features. They even shared a name. When Polly heard about the similarity, she joked that her father's spirit had returned to protect her. Gentle hadn't enlightened her about his lack of concern for his children.

Kicking off her slippers, she pondered on the unusual relationship with George. She felt safe with him, as if he was indeed family. Lacing her fingers she let her hands lie in her lap, remembering the first time he acknowledged her and how amazed she had been to see the familiar glint in his eye and an almost recognisable little-boy grin.

The winter sun had burst through the cloud the second he bade her good morning, lighting his face and igniting his smile. Or so Gentle thought. She was later to learn that his inner well-being was the cause of the illumination. Now that she was near to him, she noticed the smoothness of his skin, almost baby-like in its texture. His green overcoat was unbuttoned, displaying a beige polo neck shirt beneath a toning sweatshirt embellished with a sporty logo. His choice of clothes belied his age, she thought, inching a fraction nearer the man she had spent hours scrutinising from afar. They were sitting on a corroded iron bench with diverse messages scratched in what was left of the basic black paint.

'Only place to be on a fine day,' he said, favouring Gentle with another bright smile. 'Though the benches are not what they were.' He gazed at her, quite candidly. 'Do you come here often?' Hazel-flecked blue eyes held hers until she felt the colour rise in her cheeks, compelling her to look elsewhere.

'Every day,' she said, shyly, crushing a desire to reveal her study of him, to disclose her approval of his demeanour, and profess to being envious of his self-assurance.

He fingered his whiskers, and then extended his hand so rapidly that Gentle jerked backwards. The movement made him laugh but he was instantly contrite and concerned about her welfare, reassuring her with an apology. The way he was with animals, Gentle thought as she adjusted her collar.

'I was about to introduce myself,' he said. 'But maybe now you have no desire to become acquainted.'

Although Gentle's smile was coy she felt somewhat coquettish inside, as if the practice of picking up men was routine. She was not at all certain how she would feel in such a circumstance since she had never before spoken to a stranger. 'My name's Gentle Appleyard,' she said, proffering her hand and praying he wouldn't laugh at her silly name.

'Gentle Appleyard,' he repeated, angling his head skywards as he experimented with the name. 'Gentle name for a gentle lady. Delightful.'

Gentle blushed, wishing he would release her hand so that she could mask her trembling mouth.

'And I'm George,' he said, restoring his gaze to her face. 'George Tensing.'

Gentle tried to suppress a giggle. 'That's a coincidence. I live in a property called Tensing House. I moved there when Bridget Road was demolished.'

'Ah, yes. The motorway development.'

They debated the development and the major upheaval it had caused. The residents had been agreeably compensated though George said he failed to see how one could be sufficiently recompensed for losing one's home. Gentle kept her own situation to herself. It was, after all, no-one else's business.

They met frequently after that, always in the park. George didn't actually invite her to join him, merely specified the time he would be there, permitting Gentle the freedom to schedule her own afternoons. Nevertheless, except for one occasion when a migraine kept her closeted in a darkened room, she visited the park whenever he said he would be there. Her admiration of him grew. Fondness ripened like blossoms in spring. Their friendship was precious. There was an affinity she couldn’t define, a closeness equivalent to that experienced with family members. He was as vigilant as a father, as waggish as a brother. And now, at his request, he was coming to tea. She didn't know why but trusted he wasn't intending to propose, for although she adored him it was as a sister for a favourite brother or a daughter for a beloved father.

Gentle toured the ground floor for a final inspection, speculating on what he would say when he arrived at the imposing house. Would he judge it too grand? She had made no mention of the fact that her abode was a gift or that her benefactor chose to remain anonymous. She inhabited this beautiful home, free as a bird with no-one to call her to task, yet the plumes of perpetual puzzlement weighed heavy.

There had been no other choice for Gentle, when she was booted out of the family home in Bridget Road, but to accept the fantastic offer of occupancy, albeit from an unrevealed source. It would be more substantial than an apartment, which was all she could have afforded. At the beginning she had shrunk from moving out, believing she was forsaking the ghosts of her family, but the conditions: the rubble, the diggers, the houses plummeting like swatted flies, forced her to heap her paraphernalia into crates and get out. With tear-drenched eyes she had bid her ghosts adieu: father, mother, two younger brothers and a sister, all dead.

Gentle's father, George, committed suicide after Matilda, her mother, died in childbirth. Twenty-five years ago. The baby, baptised Caroline, also died. The triple tragedy motivated Peter and Graham, Gentle's harum-scarum brothers, to go completely off the rails, taking to drink in a big way. Both were killed in a horrifying car crash for which they were unreservedly responsible. Ghosts were all Gentle had to call her kin.

Tensing House, as instructed by the solicitor who summoned her to see him about a most urgent matter, had been assigned to her by an unknown donor; a most generous gift, he said, looking down his nose as if the subject disgusted him, as if the transaction was disreputable and sordid. Gentle was unable to take in the significance of the settlement and implored the lawyer to shed some light. She gleaned this much: that the donor, who craved anonymity, was a friend of her mother, and as her mother had passed away long ago the likelihood of discovering the identity was remote. The lawyer remained mute and, at length, Gentle suspended the inquisition. Keys were handed over; the residence and contents were hers. Despite that, apart from sporadic checks, Gentle stayed with her ghosts until the bulldozers were well into their annihilation of Bridget Road.

George arrived punctually at five o'clock, carrying a colossal bouquet of bronze carnations. He presented them with a slight bow which generated another fracas in the pit of Gentle's stomach. She stuttered her appreciation and prayed they weren't a precursor for some sort of declaration. Perhaps she shouldn't have worn a dress with plunging neckline but it was the only one that complemented the decor, a blend of sage and cream with a dash of subtle orange at the neck.

After putting the blooms in water, she led the way to the library, still intact with her benefactor's books, where she intended to serve tea. The same autumn-like flavour had been accomplished by filling an array of ceramic vases with more preserved foliage and roping in some yellow ribbon. The log fire was blazing, its flames reproduced in two glass decanters on an Italian escritoire. A low varnished table, identical in length to the two beige couches either side, was already laid. Neatly folded Irish linen napkins indicated the seating arrangement. Scents of firewood, potpourri and lavender polish gave the setting a homely quality. Dimmed lighting hid the stains on the wallpaper that came with the house, a predisposition to redecorate having fully eluded her.

George's outfit: taupe cords, polo neck shirt, and a rust-coloured suede jacket, perfectly fitted the room. Remarkably at ease, he warmed his backside in front of the fire before sliding to a place at the table. He unfurled his napkin and planted it on his knee with enviable aplomb. 'This is exceedingly civilised,' he remarked as he dug the salad servers into the bowl and transferred a bundle of lamb's lettuce to his plate.

'I thought salad would be safest, not knowing your preference.'

'My preference, dear Gentle, is for simple fare.' George aimed his fork at the cornflower dish. 'And I'm rather partial to home-baked goodies like those delectable scones.' He stabbed the fork into a slice of ham then helped himself to a segment of pork pie.

'Would you like pickles with your meat?'

'No thanks, m'dear. I like them but they're not overly fond of me. Pickles, particularly onions, give me a gippy tum.' George speared a cherry tomato and viewed his surroundings, taking in the magnificent portrait of an elderly man above the mantelpiece. Gentle tracked his glance and denigrated the artist again for not signing his work; a signature might have solved the secret of the estate. Ethel Rhodes said the portrait had always been there, but she didn't know the subject.

Ethel was Gentle's immediate neighbour, a middle-aged widow who had lived in the area for twenty years. When her husband was alive, they often visited the house. It was she who unveiled the owner's identity: Gilbert Mellish, describing him as an elderly bachelor who had chosen to take more modest accommodation. No, she did not have the address. No, she was not aware that Mr Mellish had any family. Gentle had striven to trace the man but the solicitor declined to divulge any more. ‘Mr Mellish,’ he said, ‘was entitled to do what he liked with his personal domain. He was also entitled to his privacy. Miss Appleyard must either take it or leave it. Goodbye.’ Gentle shook her head at the memory of the man's curtness and recalled Polly's reproof that she hadn't thought fit to shove a fist in his scowling face.

'Is something wrong?' George asked.

'Just me and my pointless thoughts,' she said, and wondered if she should explain about the house. She decided against it. It was such an improbable tale; he wouldn't believe a word of it. Seeing that George had finished his salad, she passed him the dish of scones. 'Can I tempt you?' she enquired.

'Definitely, m'dear.' George attacked a scone with his knife, his gleeful expression as he spooned the jam and piled on the cream akin to a child let loose in a sweet factory.

Like Dad, Gentle thought. The same Cheshire cat grin that stretched from ear to ear whenever he got his hands on the cream. She said as much to George. 'Honestly,' she said, 'you remind me of my father. Without exception, when he…'

A loud clunk cut her short. George had dropped his knife. Moreover, in an attempt to rescue it, he nudged his plate into his cup and the lot went down in hot pursuit. Dollops of jam smeared the Axminster. Milky tea dribbled down the leather couch. Crimson-faced, he eyed the mess, tugging his beard in his agitation.

Gentle shot up. 'Don't worry,' she said. 'I'll soon have it cleaned up.' She loped towards the kitchen, side-stepping an ivory jardinière containing a giant weeping fig. Dodging a king-size, circular pouffe she raced through the kitchen door, gathered floor cloths, and hurtled back.

George was still sitting on the couch, plainly crestfallen. His complexion had resumed its natural pallor but the way he kept parting his beard laid bare his nervousness. Gentle rested on her heels and stared at him. Why was he so flustered over a minor casualty? It wasn't as though he'd smashed the Royal Doulton.

'I'll go, m'dear, before I do more damage.'


'I must. I don't feel so good.'

Certainly, he was not his regular happy-go-lucky self. 'I'll see you home, George.'

'No, really, I'd rather walk alone. The fresh air will do me good.' George advanced towards the hall and the cloakroom where he had installed his coat and hat.

Gentle trailed after him. 'If you're absolutely sure -'

'Yes, m'dear. I am. A decent sleep will see me right for tomorrow's trip to the park.' He swivelled to face her and then did something altogether unexpected. He put his hand on her shoulder and bent to kiss her cheek. 'Shall I see you tomorrow?' he asked in a low voice.

Gentle nodded. 'I'll be there,' she said as he scurried into the night, but she didn't think he could have heard for he peered straight ahead as he hurried along the gravel drive. Watching from the doorway, Gentle raised her arm to wave, but George carried on and all she could do was retreat into the house. Tears were looming as she attached the brass door chain and slid home the bolts. Severe sadness overtook her. The pleasant evening she had carefully and so delightedly prepared for had crumpled like the debris in Bridget Road. She felt as if she, too, had been demolished. If only she hadn’t insulted him so.

The following morning, still mentally damaged, Gentle busied herself in the house. To prevent further morose thoughts maturing she toiled like a Trojan at her chores. She changed and washed the bedclothes, tidied the wardrobe, ironed her blouses and stored them on hangers, and polished the bath until it shone. Then she embarked on a ground floor vacuuming session, whirring round like the crazy woman she felt. After a turbulent night spent constantly brooding and trying to interpret George's hasty exit she was, to some degree, unhinged.

Library cleaning concluded, she wheeled the machine into the hall and steered it towards the cloakroom. She was in two minds about going to the park, anticipating that the afternoon would be futile. George would probably shun her, if he showed up at all, while she would be at a loss for words. Tweaking the arm of the red coat she wore most often and rearranging the shoulders on the hanger, Gentle persuaded herself that the black one would be more suitable today.

Chastising herself for being a fool, she switched on the vacuum and proceeded to clean under the padded bench that lined the wall. A chat with Polly would improve her mood; on the other hand, consultation might return her to fathomless doldrums. Gentle propelled the vacuum so vigorously under the bench that it became wedged behind one of the support posts. Exasperatedly, she flicked off the machine and stooped to free it. Trying to manoeuvre a hefty machine in such a confined space wasn’t easy and eventually she lay on her belly so that she could use both hands. Her fingers touched a number of lost items which she pulled out of the way: a brown glove, a pad of yellow post-it notes, and a leather purse.

With the appliance finally detached from its restraint, Gentle finished cleaning the void beneath the bench then started to pocket the things she had fished out, intending to put them in the bin. However, what she had taken for a purse was, in fact, a wallet, grey leather with initials in the corner. Distinctly baffled, she stood for some moments staring at it, running her fingers over the embossed letters: G.G.M. It was, it must be, the property of Gilbert Mellish. She collapsed onto the bench as comprehension developed and with it a certainty that enlightenment was near. The tremendous excitement that surged through her body clouded the belatedness of her find and the fact that in three years it had not earlier emerged.

Eagerly, she opened the notecase. One side contained assorted papers; the other was designed to accommodate credit cards: American Express, Barclaycard, and an RSPB visa. The papers were purely scribbled notes and exhibited not one useful bit of information. No address or telephone number or telltale receipt. Impatiently, she unzipped a bulky compartment and discovered a set of sepia snaps secured by a rubber band. Suspecting she was about to unearth some long-awaited answers, she withdrew the pack and hurriedly removed the band.

Outside, a gang of refuse collectors bombarded each other with friendly abuse as they slung rubbish into the cart. Ethel Rhodes would soon be there, gathering and folding black plastic bags and posting them like letters through various doors. It was Gentle's custom to invite her in for morning coffee; she would have to give it a miss today.

She laid the photographs on the bench, equidistant like the line-up for solitaire. One was of a wedding group in twenties clothes and another, taken on a riverbank, was of the blonde bride and her poker-backed groom. The couple were captured again, this time with an infant in knickerbockers. They looked frightfully posh. The man held a splendid cane and his wife wore a disgusting fox fur. In the hall, the letterbox rattled. A faint plop signified the arrival of the plastic bag. Gentle held her breath, presuming Ethel would ring the bell. When no sound came, she reverted to the photographs, selecting a puckered one from the other end of the row, the result of endless handling. A more up-to-date snap, conceivably taken in the fifties, a different woman gazing at the child in her arms, her features hidden by a curtain of dark hair.

As she replaced the picture, Gentle's eye took in the next one. She lifted it, starting in surprise. How like George the man was. Same build, same Assyrian beard, though naturally darker considering the difference in the generation. Gentle examined the man's face, noting the jutting eyebrows and distinctive Roman nose, and she knew suddenly that it was George. More youthful, but undeniably him. An involuntary cry escaped her lips. Her hands flew to her mouth. The snapshot fluttered to the bench. Gentle trembled, fearing the concept of uncharted territories. She swept the snap aside, then, as abruptly, retrieved it. Her discernment had been ousted by overwhelming consternation. She skimmed the reverse for an inscription. There was none, not even a date. Disheartened, she sifted through the outstanding snaps. They were of no help.

What should she do? How should she deal with this bizarre enigma? Gentle was examining her reflection in the bathroom mirror where she was sluggishly titivating in readiness for the outing to the park. Like yesterday, her nerves were in shreds. Polly would know what to do. She'd have it sewn up in seconds. Don't know what you're worrying about, she'd say. It's not as though you've unlocked the secrets of the grave. Challenge him. Maybe he'll disentangle the riddle. But Polly wasn't home. Even the answering machine was unavailable.

Gentle's only recourse was to tackle George outright about his relationship with the mysterious Gilbert Mellish. It was vital she determined the connection between herself and him. She teetered between forgetting the whole affair and grubbing about until she unearthed the truth for herself, but why should she do that when the facts were a mere half-hour away. By evening, like it or not, by diplomatic confrontation, the history of Tensing House and its master could be resolutely established. George, she would say, lightly so as not to alienate him early on, I have come across a picture of your double, a veritable effigy of yourself.

She fixed her make-up with loose powder, dabbing an extra bit on her nose to reduce the shine, and then deftly applied the merest smear of coral lipstick. Her freshly shampooed hair was tidy and the style intact, an extra quantity of ultra-firm hair spray had competently done its job. A modicum of Vol de Nuit behind the ears and on the lapel of her heather and navy dress and she was set to go. She cleared the shelf of cosmetics, stuffing them in a rattan box, dropping cotton wool and sodden tissues into a raffia bin. Occasionally, when she was late, she left the mess until she came back; today, the chore was a stalling ploy, Only when the glass shelf was spotless did she go downstairs to don her black coat.

George was feeding a gaggle of Canada geese and talking reassuringly whenever one ventured to take the bread from his hand. He obviously discounted the steady drizzle for his soft-felt hat was squashed into the pocket of his Barber jacket. Much good will that do him, Gentle thought, as she huddled into her paisley umbrella. Leaving the path, she stepped across the grass to where George was shooing the geese away.

'That's all, boys and girls,' he said, bestowing Gentle with a sheepish grin. 'Hello, m'dear. Wasn't sure you'd wander out on such a miserable day, especially after my discourteous exodus.'

In spite of Gentle's determination to keep her cool, she thrust her hand in her pocket to bring out the grey wallet. Stitches popped as she wrenched it out.

'Brilliant,' George exclaimed. 'You found the wallet. I couldn't think what had happened to it. Didn't realise I'd left it behind. Thought I'd lost it in the bank, but the manager said no-one had handed it in.'

An unbearable wave of disquiet circulated Gentle's internal system. There was no question it was Gilbert Mellish's wallet; the initials confirmed it. So what was George doing with it? George was holding out his hand, palm upwards, waiting for her to hand it over. Idiotically, she thought how deeply-etched his life-line was and how red the flesh embedding the shank of a gold signet ring.

'Are you all right, m'dear?'

By degrees, Gentle's wits returned. Without a doubt, there was a lucid explanation. 'I thought it belonged to Gilbert Mellish,' she said, offering the wallet. 'He was ... is … my benefactor. There was a photograph of you. I thought ...'

George reddened. There was a lull so intense that Gentle thought his malady had recurred. 'It looks as if I have been found out,' he said. Gentle was surprised to see him grinning. He plucked the photographs from the wallet and leafed through until he came to the one of him. Perusing it briefly, he inserted it behind the one of the woman and child. He pressed his lips firmly together as though subduing an additional comment.

Gentle was exhaustively flummoxed. She tilted the umbrella and tested the air with her hand. The rain had stopped. A military jet streaked through the sky, observed by children in a nearby school-yard. It was home-time for them. They knew where their homes were. Gentle wasn't so sure. She wasn't convinced of anything any more.

George stowed the prints in the wallet and snapped it shut. Thoughtfully, he contemplated Gentle as if deliberating what to say, while Gentle furled the umbrella and endeavoured, unsuccessfully, to envisage what the eventual upshot would be.

George confessed: 'My name is also Gilbert. Gilbert George Tensing-Mellish.'

The stunned silence that succeeded the extraordinary pronouncement was eventually broken by Gentle's belated gasp. Her umbrella thudded to the ground. So dumbfounded was she that she could not speak. She simply gawked.

'I hoped you would never find out.'

'Why?' she whispered. Gentle meant why did he give her the house but George thought she was responding to his last statement and he replied that, rightly or wrongly, he had reckoned it in her best interests not to know.

'Come,' he said, examining the dull sky. 'Let's take shelter before the next deluge. He picked up the paisley umbrella, took her arm, and escorted her to the deserted bandstand. It smelled damp. Puddles lay where rain had penetrated the punctured tarpaulin cover. The floor was littered with sweet papers, ice cream cups, and a pizza box. A baby's pink bootee was wedged in the rails. The perimeter bench was cluttered with crushed Carlsberg cans which George had to dispose of before they could sit down.

It was at that desolate site that Gentle Appleyard's entire existence was pulverised and rebuilt, the script rewritten with a change of characters. It came to light that Gilbert George Tensing-Mellish had a bigger role to play in Gentle's life than she could ever have guessed.

George had got to know Gentle's parents at a local youth club. They played table tennis and participated in tournaments. Matilda had been the strongest player and pretty soon outdistanced her artistic boy friend. She progressed to champion level, but didn’t win a title. Her head at that time was filled with ideas of betrothal and her concentration lapsed. She was unable to resist the attentions of the handsome academic.

'Seems like a hundred years, looking back,' George said.

Gentle listened intently, unaware that she was corkscrewing her handkerchief, damp now from continual swabbing of raindrops in her hair. She did not interrupt. She was anxious for details of her parents' early lives, for neither had shown an inclination to air their past. Both were unresponsive to their children's curiosity. It was as though mortality had not commenced until they met. They were orphans, she knew that; they met in an orphanage in Birmingham. Perhaps that was why they didn't recount their exploits, or describe their romance, or spoke of friends, electing to forget the lamentable events.

'We lost touch when I went abroad,' George said. 'India. Five years, sketching the scenery and the people. Remiss of me not to ...' He broke off as two breathless juveniles appeared at the entrance, piloted by a heaving Alsatian puppy on a well-chewed lead.

'Sorry, mister,' the tallest boy said, intimidated by George's menacing glare. 'Majorette wanted a pickle.'

'Well, take Majorette elsewhere. There's enough moisture in here without adding more.' George winked at Gentle as the boys were led sharply away by the energetic hound. 'Majorette indeed. Ridiculous name for an animal. So, where was I?'

At Gentle's prompting, he continued his account. 'George and Matilda were married by the time I returned,' he said, wincing as he said it. He fell silent, hanging his head as if ashamed. 'I shouldn't be discussing them with you.'

Gentle urged him to go on.

'They weren't as happy as one would have expected them to be considering how ardent they'd been at the start of their engagement.'

Gentle reflected on her parents' unhappiness, hearing once more the nocturnal arguments. Separately, they portrayed as kind, tolerant, and caring parents, leastways to the outside world, but those characteristics could only be attributed to her mother. At other times, one sensed the sparks waiting to ignite.

To their merit, they struggled to sustain near-normal behaviour so that the children would not be affected; maintaining an atmosphere so harmonious that no outsider would suspect anything was amiss. That was daytime. At night, things went terribly wrong. That was when, in the seclusion of their own space, their disputes ricocheted like exploding shells. That was when, converged in gloomy recesses, Gentle and her brothers encountered the qualms of insecurity. Notwithstanding, regardless of their trepidation and revulsion, Gentle and the boys respected their father and adored their mother. That's why their deaths were so painful.

With echoes of the past occupying her mind, Gentle missed a lot of George's nostalgic narration and by the time she tuned in he was reminiscing about the dinner he laid on for Matilda's birthday. 'I gave her a brooch. A butterfly. She prized it like it was a crown jewel. How radiant she looked when she opened the box. Her hair gleamed in the candlelight. The shawl collar of her chiffon dress encircled her throat like a soft cloud.' George moaned at the memory. 'She gave me permission to pin the butterfly to her lapel. I thought I would go insane with affection for her.'

'Where was this, George?'

'Why, at home, m'dear. Tensing House.'

A presentiment took shape in Gentle's overactive imagination, an inkling that it was because of her mother she had been given the house. Restraining herself from babbling, and willing now to receive whatever clarification came, she enquired if it was on account of her mother that he entrusted the house to her.

'I gave you the house, m'dear, to salve my conscience, because you are your mother's child. I would have provided for her and her family if she would have allowed it, but she dreaded public disgrace. No matter that your father's knowledge of her disloyalty converted him to a brute or that he beat her unmercifully, she perceived that her children's innocence was of paramount importance.'

Finding the revelation distressing, Gentle twisted away and peered through the sheeting rain. A courting couple were canoodling by a broad oak, heedless of the inclement weather. What a pity her mother had not seen fit to turn a blind eye to her principles, thought Gentle, wondering how she hadn't discerned that she was a victim of domestic violence, or even that her mother had a paramour. Nor had she grasped the worthiness of her values. Gentle wrapped her arms around her body, swaying slightly as she embraced the dawn of understanding, and recognized the forfeits her mother paid. She had trodden a principled path in her denial of love and all for the sake of moral standards. Gentle challenged her mother's prudence in enduring beatings when a man like George abided in the wings, a man who idolised her, who would have comforted and sheltered her, and cherished her to the end of time.

Gentle's imagination was operating at such a pace she was losing the thread of George's revelations and missing significant details. The picture was almost complete, but she needed to backtrack, to the year her mother's birthday was celebrated in Tensing House. She swung round and asked. 'When was the birthday dinner? Was it long before she died?' She was thinking about poor baby Caroline.'

'Oh no, m'dear. It was the year before you were born.'

Confounded by the startling announcement and totally unprepared for its implication, Gentle was devoid of rational speech. She could only gape in astonishment. She'd had the notion that Caroline was his daughter, instead it seemed...

Gentle swallowed. This was a new slant. It suggested that her creation was due to him and not the man who raised her. An echo of shouted words ascended from the past, when she and her brothers were sheltering in the dark, quietly querying what their father meant when he labelled their mother a whore, and why he was ordering her to pack her bags and go to her fancy man. And mother, exhausted by the years of bickering, insisting she would not leave the children; and father, refusing to let them go. And the subsequent screams, their father bellowing, for some strange reason, his own name: George. Bloody George.

Gradually, as recollection faded, Gentle returned to consciousness. George was indulgently contemplating her. 'Are you telling me… ?’

'Yes, m'dear.'

'You are my … our father?'

'Yes, m'dear.'

That night, while sipping a beaker of hot chocolate, George's leather-bound chronicles abandoned beside her on a mulberry chaise-longue, Gentle finally admitted that subconsciously she had known from their first meeting that they were related. The fire was ebbing, the last fragment of charred timber ready to cave-in. Great-grandfather Mellish smiled benevolently from his gilt frame. The clock intruded on the quietness, its minute finger thumping around the hour, interrupted periodically by a faltering blip on the six. As an accompaniment, someone's car alarm rang out. The lounge was lit by a single lamp, ample to read by without disturbing George, who was dozing in the fireside chair. A velvet cushion supported his head. She had covered his knees with a tartan travel rug in case his slumbers deepened. He was worn out and no wonder, having borne the burden of confession that should have been endured by her mother. Gentle had begged him to stay, and they laughed when she did. Inviting a man to stay in his own house had seemed hilarious. He had a singular sense of humour. He didn't deserve to have been so unfairly rejected.

Noiselessly, she slithered from her seat and kneeled alongside him, reaching up to stroke the edge of his beard. A whit more silky growth and he could play the part of Saint Nick and deliver gifts at Christmas. But his gift to her, the gift of belonging, could never be equalled or accepted so emotionally. Gentle searched his countenance, scanning the laughter lines and the minor imperfections: liver spots and a tiny scar on his brow. The affinity was so strong, so vibrant, it was surprising he didn't wake and catch her out.

She was thrilled with him. It was as if the other George, her pseudo Dad, had not existed. She wished her brothers could have known him. They, like her, would not have deduced that he had sired the entire Appleyard stock. What would they have said if they had known? Peter, the noisy one, often conceded his disgust for their father's arguing and yelling, sometimes mimicking the seething rages so well that Gentle fretted they could become immutable. Graham was a mystery. Quiet, uncomplaining, outwardly reacting as if the situation was ordinary family conduct, except that Gentle habitually heard him crying in the confines of his room. Caroline, poor mite, hadn't had the chance to learn any of it.

Returning to her seat, Gentle cupped her beaker and sipped the chocolate, letting the steam drift into her face. She lowered her eyelids and mused about her family, whose ghosts had taken alternative identities. Mother: a sweetheart and a mistress; siblings: all bastards; and father: a barbarous impostor. Primarily, Gentle understood his attitude. He must have thought the assaults were justified even though, according to George, the marriage was never consummated. Equally, she appreciated that her mother's frustration had driven her into George's arms. That she worshipped him there was no doubt, she had gleaned that from George's diaries, each entry infused with elements of rapture and delight, passion and enchantment, and the melodrama that accompanied each welcome birth - barring Caroline who died with her mother, she, too, a victim of George Appleyard's brutality.

Gentle drained the last mouthful of chocolate and selected another diary. The only one in white leather. Raising the cover, she saw more photographs of her grandparents and George in his knickerbockers. There was also a portrayal of the woman and child. She extricated it from the protective film and turned it over. A dedication was penned in black ink. At the foot, a squiggly arrow had been inserted to draw attention to a block of kisses the size of a postage stamp, below which was written: To dearest Bertie, with all our love, Matilda and Gentle. The date was Gentle's first birthday.

With tears in her eyes, she looked at George and saw that he had stirred. He was smiling, and his smile depicted a contented soul, personifying a man who had, at last, achieved his rightful place in his daughter's heart.